Ross Cooper

Curriculum Director/Specialist

Bethlehem, PA

Interests: Active and...

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5 Questions for Leaders to Ask Themselves

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As I head into my fourth year as an administrator – one as an assistant principal and three as a curriculum supervisor – I’ve spent some time reflecting upon what I believe, and what type of attitude I bring with me into work on a daily basis.

At this point in time, here are the five questions that I consistently try to keep in mind – five questions I suspect all leaders could benefit from asking themselves.

1. Am I Modeling What I Want to See in Others?

This question is inspired by Jimmy Casas, former high school principal, who says, “What we model is what we get.”

As an administrator (teacher, educator, person, etc.), if I’m not liking what “I’m getting,” I do believe I should first and foremost ask myself If I am leading by example. And, if my expectations for others don’t match my own actions, I’m potentially being hypocritical. Here, a possible pitfall involves the belief that, because of a title, rules don’t apply. However, I would argue that the rules apply even more, partly because, as George Couros explains, “The higher up we go in the traditional hierarchy, the more people we serve; not the other way around.”

Final thought: The best educators with whom I’ve worked are able to excel regardless of what’s being modeled for them.

2. Am I Making Others Better?

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Facebook, concludes, “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”

As I continue to collaborate with colleagues, there are two main ways I can make others better: I can show them what to do through effective modeling, as previously touched upon; or, I can demonstrate what not to do (unintentionally), with the chance they’ll learn from my mistakes. I now know that every experience teaches us something, but the former option is a whole lot less painful for those on the receiving end. And, if we’re truly confident in ourselves, we continue to help others get better even when they may become more successful than us.

Final thought: Sandberg’s quote parallels what Jim Collins says about our best leaders – “Level 5 leaders want to see the company even more successful in the next generation, comfortable with the idea that most people won’t even know that the roots of that success trace back to their efforts.”

3. Am I Caring for Others, Personally and Professionally?

One of my absolute favorite quotes come from Wendy Mass, New York Times bestselling author, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

As administrators, we’re constantly looking for ways to move our schools and districts forward. But, the best idea will fall flat on its face if we prioritize obsession with progress over passion for our people. While what we bring to the table is probably of the utmost importance to us, we have to be cognizant of the fact that every day, we all most likely wake up with some type of personal and/or professional baggage. And, if we choose to ignore the basic needs of others, we shouldn’t expect to have their support when we need them most.

Final thought: I have learned, sometimes the first rule of change is: You do not talk about change. We must intentionally balance these conversations by also making time for casual discussion that may have nothing to do with initiatives or education. 

4. Am I Making Others Feel Good About Their Work and Valued?

According to the great Dale Carnegie, “There is one longing – almost as deep, almost as imperious, as the desire for food or sleep – which is seldom gratified. It is what Freud calls ‘the desire to be great.’ It is what Dewey calls ‘the desire to be important.’”

In one way or another, everyone wants to feel important and valued. And, when we’re “above” others on a hierarchy, we often have noticeable control over the extent to which others feel these emotions. To make coworkers feel good about their work, one non-negotiable is regularly asking for and considering the input of others, regardless of position (which is different than everyone getting their way). Also, the best leaders with whom I’ve collaborated facilitate meetings/discussions almost as equals. For a stranger walking into the room, it would be difficult to determine who holds what position.

Final thought: If someone “below” us reveals he doesn’t feel valued, we can’t claim otherwise. Instead, our actions probably need to change. In other words, simply announcing, “Yes, you are valued!” does not make it so.

5. Do I Care About Who's Right or What's Best for Kids?

Finally, Todd Whitaker tells us, “I have always believed that no matter how much two people disagree, if both of them consistently make their decisions based on what is best for the students, then they are both right.”

Of course, there is some gray area here, as one person’s definition of “acting in the students’ best interests” can easily differ from someone else’s. After all, on a daily basis we all show up to work with different experiences, skillsets, and beliefs. But, in all circumstances in which a decision must be made, someone (or a group of people) must eventually decide on what the next steps will be. And, if we start to justify our decisions with jobs titles (or to show who’s boss), as opposed to rationale, we’re on a very slippery slope.

Final thought: Crucial Accountability says it all when the authors declare, “We convince ourselves that we need to use power to solve the problem, and we enjoy doing it. That’s because we’re thinking with our dumbed-down, adrenaline-fed lizard brains.”

In the End

By no stretch of the imagination do I feel like I’ve “mastered” these five questions. On some days, I’m proud of the progress I believe I am demonstrating; on other days, I may fall flat on my face. Either way, I am always striving to do better.

Bonus question: Am I doing what’s right, or am I doing what’s easy?

What’s your favorite question?

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1 Comment

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Demetrios_Mendonis

14 Sep 17, 03:10 PM

Ross, thank you for your insight! It is commonplace for administrators to ask their staff to be reflective of their teaching. Sometimes we forget to reflect on our own progress as leaders. Your 5 questions are a good way to reconnect with the most important part of leadership - strengthening the connections we have to the adults and children in our buildings and refocusing our own efforts in supporting a healthy learning environment.
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